Monday, May 30, 2016

Guest Review: Orca (1977)

by Rustbelt

Orcinus Orca. Doesn’t that name just scream terror, horror, and everything else that makes your blood run cold? What, no? Really? Why not? It’s a KILLER whale! Maybe it’s because we’re just used to images of tamed versions of these whales doing tricks at Sea World, which we would never expect out of a carcharodon carcharias. Maybe, because they’re air-breathing mammals like us, we can’t conceive of them performing acts of cruelty, like a carcharodon carcharias. Maybe it’s because some of us mistakenly think they’re just too cute to be evil, unlike the carcharodon carcharias. Or maybe you saw this film that took the leather-jacket-wearing cool out of killer whales forever.

We have the insanity of Italian super-producer Dino de Laurentiis to thank for this celluloid headache. Apparently, after watching Jaws - which he must have thought was a minor indie film that no one would recognize or interpret as having been copied - he ordered his producer “by the bones of Amen-Kara, and the many moons of Jupiter to find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white!” Orca was born.
The Plot

Orca is the doomed story of Richard Harris, a fisherman in Newfoundland who captures sea creatures for aquariums. His name is Nolan, but we’ll call him Quody as he seems to be a combination of Jaws’s Captain Quint and Chief Brody. He rescues a pretty (duh!) marine biologist named Dr. Bedford (let’s call her ‘Hoopette!’), from a great white shark. Said shark is then eaten by a killer whale. Duh, duh, duuuhhh...
We then see Hoopette is about as sane as Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park III, lecturing her students on how killer whales are the most intelligent, creative, understanding, formidable, and psychic (?!) creatures in the universe. Perhaps this is only to set up Quody’s next move, as he shows as much intelligence as the average mid-card victim in a Friday the 13th flick. (You know, the one who- 70 minutes in - walks into a dark room where Jason couldn’t possibly be hiding because they heard a kitty and want to comfort it. How precious…ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma!) Okay, back to this film...

Quody’s crew captures another killer whale. Complications arise when the creature miscarriages on deck and the whale’s mate - the one that earlier killed the shark - screams in agony. He attacks the boat, killing one seaman and injuring crewmember Bo Derek. The FIEND! Cutting his losses, and ignoring the black market bounty he could collect from Planned Parenthood, Quody dumps the corpses overboard and heads back to port. To his astonishment, he finds the female on the beach the next day, with the living whale still screaming at him from a distance. Hoopette arrives to tell him it’s a challenge and it will be a fight to the death between them. Uh-huh...
From here on, it’s your standard revenge between a bully and the reluctant challenger being pulled into a main event showdown. In rapid order, the whale destroys some boats, breaks vital fuel lines, sinks Quody’s dockside home, bites off Bo Derek’s leg (that TERRIBLE fiend!), and performs leaps. Quody, Hoopette, and some redshirts then head out to sea, following the whale to the site of Seaside Springslam ’77.

After killing the redshirts, the whale sinks the boat near some icebergs and traps Quody on an ice island by breaking a berg and pushing it all by itself. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. You know, this scene has raised questions and been commented on by several notables. Those comments, among others, include:
Science: “I quit.”
The Civil Ice Patrol: “Why are we wasting our lives out here?”
The Wreck of the Titanic: “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDIN’ ME!”
Long story short, the whale flips Quody through the air to his death. The whale dives under the ice, presumably to its death by drowning. Hoopette waits on a ‘berg as a chopper arrives to rescue her.

What Went Wrong?

What went wrong? How about the starring beast? As noted, the killer whale was selected because it can potentially be seen as more dangerous than the great white. And, indeed, such whales have been known to kill great whites in real life. The problem, however, lies in the portrayal.

The whale is shown as having human-level intelligence and emotions. And while humanization might seem like a good idea, it reaches levels of sheer absurdity. How does the whale know where Quody lives? How would it know when he’s on the beach in order to scream at him? How would it know the importance of fuel lines and that cutting them would hurt the village and cause the villagers to turn against Quody? I’ll stop here before I fill the page.
Also, we see the creature too much. There are tons of shots of the whale swimming through an obvious pool filled with non-ocean, green-tinted water matched against an unconvincing miniature of Quody’s dockside house on a blue set that doesn’t fit the floor plan of the soundstage the actors inhabit. All the while, the whale swims like it’s playing around at Sea World with Flipper. Though, Ennio Morriconne’s Halloween-esque music says it should be plotting in a dungeon with Freddy Kreuger. Uh, tone and buildup, anyone? This film is trying way too hard while going in all the wrong directions.

Contrast that with Jaws, where the shark was presented as a force of nature. It kills and eats people because that’s what it does. It doesn’t pick targets. The problems on land - the fear and devastation of the summer tourist season- are natural, believable, and very real reactions. No personal vendettas are needed. Add in the fact that we don’t see the shark very much (a move forced by problems with the mechanical shark), which makes it feel like a presence that could appear at any time or place. ‘Less is more’ is definitely preferable for this scenario.

Bland, Boring Humans

In many ways Orca desperately wants to be an art house version of Jaws. The characters philosophize endlessly about the Quody-whale feud and go back-and-forth with changing opinions every five minutes. It’s like the possible result of Joss Whedon and Vince Russo being fused into one, terrible playwright.

We get a lot of arty shots of the whale, the village, and underwater ice. There are even several shots of Quody and the whale reflected in each other’s eyes. Okay, etheral camerawork. We get it. Or maybe they were trying to distract us from the characters, all of whom seem to be suffering from bipolar disorder. Think about this:

Quody starts as a tough fisherman. After the female whale washes up on the beach, he goes cowardly and refuses to fight the surviving whale. Then, he claims he’s worried about other peoples’ safety, but after his house is destroyed and he gets berated by everyone he knows, he goes full Ahab and heads out after the animal, no matter how many die.

Hoopette... um, whose side is she on? At first, she’s a classic misanthrope who admires whales more than people. She berates Quody and calls him a barbarian for killing the female whale, but then she calls him a coward for not meeting the whale’s challenge. Then she interferes with his first attempt to kill the whale with dynamite. But then, on the iceberg, she demands that he shoot the thing. On behalf of all men, I would like to say: “Make up your mind, lady!” She must only exist to point the plot in the direction the filmmakers are guessing it should go.

And then there’s the crew who are loyal to Quody until the boat goes too far north and gets covered in ice like the Time Bandit during opie season. Each one decides it’s time to turn back, attempts to change the boat’s course, and gets eaten by the whale in due course. (I guess the whale won’t let common sense intervene any more than Hoopette.) The Wise Old Indian who goes with them suffers the same fate.
In Jaws, we have no caricatures. Everyone acts the way we would expect them to act. The mayor, the tourists, law enforcement, etc. all make sense. We spend most of the film watching their reactions, which draws us into the story. Fortunately, they’re also distinct, memorable, and highly quotable. Plus, their personalities play perfectly into the conclusion. For instance, once the equally egotistical Quint and Hooper are out of the way, Brody - who hates the water - is left to face the shark himself. (Did any one else notice that Quint is ultimately overconfident, as Hooper implies? Or that Hooper, at the end, is a clear coward, as Quint implies?) We’re so invested in his feud with the shark and the scene itself that it’s easy to forget the tank probably wouldn’t explode like that. Who cares? Screw you, Mythbusters! This scenes rules!

No such thing in Orca.

This movie was a bust, for obvious reasons. However, it seems to have been a favorite of Richard Harris, who defended the film all the way to his Marcus Aurelius days. However, the bosses at Universal Studios didn’t share Harris’ affections. Two years later, in 1979, one of the opening scenes of Jaws 2 featured a badly mutilated killer whale carcass washed up on the beach and a scientist telling Chief Brody that there are nastier predators in the ocean. Whether this is a case of “Take that!” or a total F-U, I will let you be the judge.

So, what do you guys think?
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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Film Friday: The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

The Devil’s Advocate is an interesting film. In many ways, it is deeply flawed to the point of driving me nuts. But it has something that always draws me back in. What is that? At its core, The Devil’s Advocate is a fascinatingly subtle film centered around a philosophical debate surrounding the morality of the idea of devil’s advocacy itself. What am I talking about? Read on.


The story begins with Gainesville, Florida attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) defending a school teacher accused of child molestation. Lomax has an “unbeaten” streak in trials, but this case is hopeless. Lomax, however, refuses to lose. He gathers his resolve and tears the young girl apart on the stand and gets his client acquitted. Of course, the client is guilty and Lomax’s victory will result in tragedy.
After the trial, a representative of a New York City law firm offers Lomax a lot of money to help pick a jury for a trial in New York City. Lomax agrees and the jury brings back a not guilty verdict. After this, John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of the firm, offers Lomax a job with the firm. Lomax accepts and moves his young wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) to New York City with him. They immediately find themselves hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

Lomax is then tasked to defend a billionaire, Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson), who is accused of murdering his wife. Lomax’s life soon begins to unravel. His wife becomes paranoia and worries that he’s having an affair. She is told that she is infertile and she tries to kill herself at a critical time for Lomax after Milton rapes her in a dream; Lomax doesn’t believe her. At the same time, Lomax discovers that the firm is engaged in shady practices. The Justice Department is after the firm. People die around the firm. He fights with the firm’s managing partner Eddie Barzoon. Lomax’s mother tells him that Milton is the Devil and that he also happens to be Lomax’s father. And he realizes that his clients are lying and are forcing him into unethical positions.

Rough day.
As everything climaxes for Lomax, Milton tells Lomax that he is really the Devil and that Lomax is actually his son. He wants Lomax to join him and together they will use the law to destroy the world.

An Interesting Film

There are many things that drive me nuts with The Devil’s Advocate. The legal aspects of the film are utterly fake. Basically, anything you see in a courtroom is not how it really happens. I don’t understand why Satan would hire an Eddie Barzoon. Surely, he can find someone a good deal sharper and more reliable amongst his minions. Milton talks about using the law to destroy the system, but the trials in which they engage seem rather minor for the purpose. Milton’s big speech revealing his plan is utter nonsense, as is his verbal attack on Barzoon as Barzoon is hunted down and killed by Milton’s agents. Examine the sentences of either speech without Al Pacino overacting in your face and you’ll see that they make no sense at all.
In a normal movie, this would be enough to turn me off. But The Devil’s Advocate isn’t a normal movie. As I said above, The Devil’s Advocate is a fascinatingly subtle film. It takes on the question of whether or not we have pushed the idea of devil’s advocacy too far to the point of justifying immorality. What’s more, it suggests that we have blinded ourselves to this fact.

To understand this, let me first explain what a devil’s advocate is because this is important. A devil’s advocate is someone who adopts a position they believe to be wrong, immoral or false merely for the sake of argument for the purpose of forcing another to defend against or explain away that position. The key here is that they adopt that position only for the sake of argument... they don’t actually support the position or act in accordance with it.

Unfortunately, too many people seem to have lost this critical aspect of devil’s advocacy. Instead, they have morphed the idea into a justification for letting them act in immoral ways. For example, advertisers might push a product with claims they know are not true on the basis that their jobs is to advertise, not be regulators of truth. Cops and prosecutors enforce laws they see as immoral on the basis that their job is to enforce the law, not make it. And lawyers... well, lawyers are the worst.
Attorney are often charged with representing people they consider repugnant or guilty or with whom they don’t agree, and the rules of ethics excuse this behavior. Basically, the rules by which attorneys operate let them separate themselves from their clients to such a degree that many attorneys can happily go all out to represent monsters without ever feeling responsible for the consequences of these people being set free to continue their horrors.

What The Devil’s Advocate does is ask if we are able to see this problem. Indeed, the entire film is centered around this. Lomax begins the story by representing a man he knows to be guilty. And rather than letting the man be punished, he destroys a little girl to save his client. Each of the clients he represents at Milton’s firm present similar dilemmas for him. Likewise, he sees that his wife is falling apart and needs his help, but again, he tells himself that he can act in contradiction to his beliefs and principles long enough to achieve his purposes and then he will take care of her. Barzoon and the Justice Department both warn Lomax that Milton’s firm is evil, but Lomax again hides behind a devil’s advocate argument that lets him ignore the misdeeds he sees on the basis that he’s not responsible for them personally. At each step in the story, when people try to warn him that he is acting morally incorrect, he dismisses their concerns on the basis of some need to play devil’s advocate, but he goes beyond that in each instance and he acts immorally rather than merely adopting an immoral position solely for the sake of argument.
This is really clever. It’s also really refreshing. Whereas Hollywood typically makes characters into cardboard because anyone can understand cardboard, Lomax’s behaviors are anything but cardboard. He is the embodiment of an excuse that allows you to defend an intolerable evil... which is exactly what a devil’s advocate does, and then he becomes the evil himself.

So what about the ending?
It is interesting to me that the final scenes between Milton and Lomax are such cartoonish gibberish because everything up to that moment was subtle and powerful. But perhaps that is the point the screenwriter was making? Perhaps, the ultimate point is that it took this level of bombastic idiotic over-the-top cartoon evil before Lomax, an otherwise very intelligent man, awoke to what he was doing: you turned a blind eye when you represented a child molester... you turned a blind eye when your wife fell apart... you turned a blind eye when your company engaged in criminal activities... when you cheated in court... when you helped a murder... and you only finally opened your eyes when Satan himself was acting like a cartoon villain in your face! Perhaps that is the point, that we should examine how often in our own lives we excuse the consequences of our actions as not being our responsibility.

Or maybe it was just poor writing.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

No Films Grrr

Sorry about the lack of a film review, folks. Believe it or not, I can't find anything worth reviewing at the moment. I tried several recent films this week and they all just left me feeling blah and like I had nothing to say. I may need to do something like "The Summer of 80's."
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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Game of Thrones Open Thread

By Kit

Well, we had some pretty big stuff happen Sunday night on Game of Thrones. I decided to pick it back up after catching last season's finale.



Yep, Jon Snow is alive, Tyron came face to face with the dragons, Arya is still blind but may finally be regaining her sight (at the cost of her identity), Ramsey Bolton behaved like a sociopathic dickhole (i.e., he behaved like himself), and Jon Snow is alive. Thoughts?

Surprised? Or not at this twist even blind Arya Stark saw coming.
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